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Union Needs To Be More Candid With Players About The “Uncapped Year”

Ever since the landmark Collective Bargaining Agreement was negotiated by the NFL and the NFL Players Association to resolve the antitrust lawsuit filed by several players (led by the late Reggie White) after the 1987 players’ strike, the last season of the CBA has been scheduled to unfold without a salary cap.
And that potential uncapped year always has been characterized as a significant windfall for the players, under the presumption that the owners won’t be able to restrain themselves, and thus will overspend in the pursuit of talented players.
But the reality promises to be far different than Pacman Jones personally delivering eight-figure signing bonuses by throwing the cash into the air over a guy’s front lawn.
With no salary cap, there will be no salary floor. And with far more teams currently well below the 2009 salary cap, what’s more likely to happen next year: (1) a spending spree that drives multiples franchises toward bankruptcy; or (2) a reeling in of player expenses as the teams gird for a work stoppage in 2011?
Our own uncapped pool of gambling money is on the latter. And we think the union is failing in its mission to sufficently prepare the players for this reality.
Case in point: The NFLPA posted today on its web site an article, titled What Happens To Benefits In An Uncapped Year? It’s the kind of dry, boring, detail-driven drivel that most players won’t read. And none of those who actually do will be troubled by anything contained in the question-and-answer-style format.
Here’s the kind of stuff that the union should be providing to the players:
Q: Will teams have any minimum spending requirements in an uncapped year?
A: No, not really. Apart from paying to each player the individual minimum salaries, teams aren’t required to spend in any collective minimum amount. In theory, a team could cut every player on the roster and then offer only one-year minimum-salary contracts. This would result in total player expenses of less than $50 million. In contrast, the minimum per-team salary obligation in 2009 is $111 million.
Q: My five-year rookie contract expires after the 2009 season. Will I be an unrestricted free agent in the uncapped year?
A: Actually, no. You won’t be. Sorry. In an uncapped year, six years of service are needed to qualify for unrestricted free agency. So you’ll be a restricted free agent instead, and your team will be able to automatically hold your rights by, in most cases, tendering a one-year contract worth far, far less than the franchise tag. So, basically, you’re screwed. Again, sorry.
(Actually, we found an item from June 2008 in which the union mentions that six years of service will be necessary in the uncapped year. But a lot has happened since June 2008, and this is a message that the union needs to be sending far more frequently, and much nore clearly.)
Q: For guys who will be unrestricted free agents, there still will be teams who are willing to spend a whole bunch of money to sign really good players, right?
A: Well, maybe. It all depends on whether those teams make it to the divisional round of the playoffs. For the “Final Eight” teams in the 2009 playoffs, there are specific restrictions regarding the number of free agents who can be signed, and the money that can be paid to them. So, basically, you need to root for the Cowboys and the Redskins to not make the playoffs. So if you play for the Cowboys or the Redskins, you’d be doing the rest of your union brethren a real solid if you could find a way to choke, again.
We think the NFLPA isn’t being frank with the players because the union is playing a dangerous game of chicken. The union wants the owners to believe that the union wants an uncapped year. And the union wants its constituents to think that an uncapped year will be only a great thing, so that the players will help foster the notion that the union wants an uncapped year.
And so, when the owners call the union’s bluff and show zero motivation to do a deal before the start of the uncapped year (and, frankly, that’s precisely what we now think will be happening), the union will find itself in a huge bind once the players begin to figure out that the uncapped year won’t do much to feather anyone’s nest in advance of a lockout. (Except for the owners.)
As I recently explained to a member of the media, I don’t think that Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman realizes he’ll be a restricted free agent in March 2010. And I also think that, if this isn’t adequately explained to Merriman before March 2010, he’ll personally fly to D.C. and turn the “lights out” at the NFLPA offices.
He probably won’t be alone.